Reflections on the Relationship(s) between ‘Entertainment’ and ‘Art’

I was talking to my brother the other night over Skype. He’s currently away from home – at university – and the only time we both seem to be online is late at night. More like early morning, come to think of it. Nevertheless we were chatting the other day about TV shows and films we’d been watching recently. Breaking Bad, Dexter, The Walking Dead, and then I mentioned to him that I’d seen The Avengers. The conversation went a little something like this:

‘The Avengers?! You watched the Avengers?’
‘Yeah.’
‘By yourself?’
‘No, no, someone else put it on and we watched it.’
‘Oh right. What did you think?’

The-Avengers_large_jpeg_verge_medium_landscape

The Avengers wasn’t a bad film. It had the action you’d expect from a superhero film, and it was all pulled off pretty well – everything was shiny, nothing was too glitchy, people moved/interacted with the CGI environment/characters as if they were really there – it was an alright film. It was by no means amazing, but it did the job.

‘So you liked the film?’
‘Well, I don’t know, I guess I liked it in a way.’
‘Really? I couldn’t imagine you ever liking that film. I didn’t like it.’

That got me thinking about the relationship between entertainment and art, and we continued to chat about this whilst struggling through a particularly difficult match of Starcraft II. You see, for me The Avengers can’t really, in any way, be called an artistic film. Certainly the director (Whedon, right?) had a vision of how things should look, how characters should interact etc.  but it’s all painted up in a Hollywood gloss that’s on everything these days. It’s painted on super-thick too. But it’s entertainment, isn’t it? That’s the aim, right? I could ‘like it in a way’ because I was considering it in context with the entertainment industry: Call of Duty, Spiderman, Prometheus etc.  If you want me to consider it in relation to the art industry – films that try to do something special, or experiment with something, or attempt to realise itself as opposed to the replication of Hollywood tropes – then it fails. Fails miserably, but it’s not an art film – and Whedon is not really an art-inclined director. The film is a casual action-film. Things happen simply because they can happen – not because they should. I’m reminded of the flying aircraft carrier. Did I miss something there? Was it explained somewhere? Perhaps it’s some throw-away comic book reference for the fans? I don’t know, but it seemed hilarious at the time. Big fans opening up, this giant boat rising into the air and then becoming invisible. Why? And of course you realise as soon as it takes off that something’s got to happen to it. IT’S IN THE AIR, A MASSIVE BOAT IS IN THE AIR – I can’t think of a more vulnerable place to be, in a massive MASSIVE boat in the air. You know something has to go wrong as soon as the thing takes off purely because of the absurdity of the situation. Every important person is on that flying boat + we are in a superhero film = attack. We buy into it though. We have to. It’s a superhero film – it lives on superhero roots.

So are there any superhero films out there that try to do it differently? Some people argue that Daredevil had a little something in it that other superhero films didn’t. Lots of people talk excitedly about Batman: The Dark Knight (which I still haven’t seen, despite being a BIG fan of Nolan’s work) but I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t comment. Unbreakable was touching on something though – it didn’t quite pull it off, but it was an interesting pseudo-superhero film that, at times, dared to poke through the Hollywood shine but it’s still entertainment than art – for me, at least.

So, can entertainment be art? If not, does that mean that art cannot be entertaining?

Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad

There were points in Breaking Bad where entertainment seemed to become art. The first episode is particularly interesting in it’s portrayal of everyday suburban life. There’s a distinct lack of music, you hear cars and traffic in the background, people sit in crappy plastic chairs at school, Walt eats his lunch at some computer table at the end off a long room with a window beside him that seems to offer an escape – an opening out – but it just opens onto a drab street with occasional passing cars, a handful of small shops. The information is given to you not only by the words that come out from someone’s mouth, but by the environment around them and the shots/sounds/camera angles used. Fear is not as simple as saying, ‘you should be afraid, a large army is coming!’ but should be instilled – fear is more than words, it thrives within us, burrows deep, like reaching the top of a staircase and taking another step up onto a step that isn’t there. A stomach-falling-tumble, so slight – but instilled. Monotony is not simply about telling us that someone leads a monotonous life, not even about showing it (because, it seems to me, people do a pretty poor job at doing that too), but about making it live on the screen.

Think of the London scene from 28 Days Later. We see Big Ben, but it’s not the Big Ben from Hollywood. It’s just Big Ben. The camera swings around the protagonist (can’t remember his name) and Big Ben comes into shot but does he care? ‘Hello?!’ He yells towards the camera – Big Ben doesn’t matter; it’s there, it’s always been there and it’s there still, it’s there just to say, ‘look, this is London,’ and then we’re left with the horror of London’s abandonment. Wide shots to close shots, broken windows, rubbish, turned over vehicles, but there’s no vast epic fire, no hellish outbreak – the absence itself is terror; the fear of the unknown, of the uncanny. For me, 28 Days Later is certainly an art film; perhaps not as experimental as others, but very clever ‘cinematically’.

28 Days Later (video wouldn't embed, click to visit the site and watch the scene in full)
28 Days Later (video wouldn’t embed, click to visit the site and watch the scene in full)

So lets talk about 28 Weeks Later.

Why. It’s not even a question, I’m not asking – I’m making a statement – I’m not letting me or anyone else have the room to answer. I’m denying the question, because compared to 28 Days, 28 Weeks is just ‘why’. It opens up pretty well – scenes of apparent normalcy in London. People milling around, paperwork, documents, safety. Those scenes were great after seeing 28 Days; it was comforting, and it was meant to be comforting. But man oh man does it go wrong. Wiki summarises parts of the plot well; ‘ Tammy and Andy, mournful over the loss of their mother, leave the safe zone and proceed to the depopulated London wasteland area to their former house on a scooter, hoping to retrieve and take their old belongings with them. To their shock, they find their mother in a semi-conscious state.’ Well, how about that? What are the chances, eh? And later; ‘when they kiss, however, the Rage Virus in her saliva immediately infects Don, who savagely kills her before going on a rampage, killing and infecting several soldiers in the building.’ Yep. One man gets infected and runs riot. Would have thought security would have been tighter, no? Thing is, you know what’s going to happen as soon as the guy enters the room to visit his asymptomatic wife – something has to go wrong because this is a film, right? There are a lot of guns too, so something has to escalate – and of course, it has to be something to do with the main characters. From there on it reduces itself to the common action/horror flick with Robert Carlyle popping up in every dark room. It’s hilarious, it’s exciting, and as a form of entertainment it’s entertaining – but it’s nothing special. It’s yesterdays action film with a new gimmick, unfortunately. I didn’t care for any of the main characters because they were walking cliché’s, they were Barbie dolls in another Hollywood film. Plastic People.

So films for entertainment can also be artistic, and vice versa – and I’m not saying that any one is better than the other. Maybe I enjoy art films more, but I’m not about to argue that they are in some way better. I simply enjoy them more – which is where we can throw everything up in the air (oh, how I love doing this). If I enjoy art films, then I’m essentially saying I find them entertaining. So if I don’t find entertainment entertaining, but find art entertaining – then the ides of entertainment is confused. Perhaps popular entertainment would be a better distinction, though this seems unfair. There are some unpopular films out there that people still find very entertaining, and to compare popular entertainment to art seems and unfair limitation. The same can be said for art too, such as the controversy over Tracy Emin and her My Bed. 

Alas, such are the problems of definition.

I was going to talk about video-games as art. Perhaps tomorrow.

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